Category: Aerospace & Defence - sponsored by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Headline sponsor: Babcock International Group
Project: Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE)
Partners: University of the Highlands and Islands with Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL), Ampaire Ltd, CloudNet, Denchi Group, European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) Ltd, FlareBright Ltd, The Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), Loganair, Windracers, ZeroAvia
Whilst the push for decarbonisation is dominating innovation across the civil aviation sector, many of the most significant applications of green flight technology have so far occurred at what might be termed the regional end of the market. And one initiative at the forefront of this push in the UK is the Sustainable Aviation Test Environment (SATE), a real-life low carbon aviation testbed based at Kirkwall Airport in the Orkney Islands.
Led by Highlands and Islands Airports (which manages and operates 11 regional airports across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland) the initiative has brought together an international consortium of industry partners, public sector bodies and academia in an effort to drive the development of low carbon air services, explore a range of use cases for alternatively fuelled aircraft and establish a blueprint for net zero regional aviation.
Launched in November 2020, SATE has already made major strides towards demonstrating how low carbon technology could be used to improve the connectivity of the area and decarbonise regional transport and logistics networks. Key successes include Scotland’s first hybrid-electric flight from Kirkwall airport to Wick John O’Groats (using an aircraft developed by US electric-aircraft pioneer and SATE partner Ampaire); demonstrations of a parcel-sized gliding drone system developed by UK firm Flare Bright; and a trial of autonomous UAVs - developed by logistics drone operator Windracers - for delivering Royal Mail cargo.
Last summer (July 2022), off the back of these achievements - the team secured funding for a follow on project (SATE2 ) which will expand the envelope of routes and technologies under the microscope.
The centre’s co-founder, Professor Andrew Rae, from the University of Highlands and Islands, puts its success down to the way in which it has enabled collaboration between a truly wide range of stakeholders. “One of the key benefits of this type of collaboration is that businesses (airports and airlines) often don’t have the headroom to engage in fundamental research, and academia often lacks the harsh evaluation of the ‘coal face’, but they can provide mutual benefit in this kind of endeavour,” he said. “Add to this the involvement of national and local government and their various agencies, and you have the ‘triple helix’ necessary to both drive innovation and temper it against the anvil of real-world use. Having a consortium of this size and variety could have been troublesome in understanding each other’s imperatives, but the focus on the potential to address climate change and make a tangible difference to communities and people’s lives has overcome all of those potential barriers.”
He added that this sense of purpose and relevance is strengthened by the fact that the project is embedded in an operating commercial airport. “Many of the new technologies look good on paper, or in glossy renderings of computer-generated images,” he said, “but they need to prove themselves within and alongside existing operations. Whether that’s flight routings, energy and refueling requirements, or their vulnerability to harsh weather, only those that can deliver on their promises without compromising existing provision are worthy of further consideration.”
Another key driver of success has been a shared sense that the technologies being explored could actually make a profound difference to the communities living in the region, in terms of improving connectivity, reducing carbon emissions, and attracting jobs and investment. “The aviation network in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are often referred to as ‘lifeline services’, and this is no trite sobriquet,” said Prof Rae, “they really can mean the difference between life and death, but they also allow communities and businesses to function. So, any technology that makes existing services safer, more reliable and cheaper, and allows new types of service to be considered, is worth pursuing, especially if they also reduce the impact of these services on the environment.”
Just two years since the project’s launch, this impact is already being measured. Indeed, according to Prof Rae, a socio-economic assessment conducted as part of the project has shown that a total project spend of around £3.5million in Orkney has generated a total economic impact of around £5.5million in the islands, and £7million in the rest of the UK, showing the significant financial impact both locally and nationally. This is in addition to the 15 new jobs created by the project. Looking further ahead at the impact of predicted changes to route networks and timetables, the centre could have an even more dramatic economic impact on the region, added Prof Rae.
The team is now busy building on this success through a follow-on project, SATE2, which is funded through UKRI’s Future Flight Challenge programme.
This second phase kicked off in July 2022 and is exploring the extension of the route networks evaluated in the original project, incorporating hub-and-spoke operations by Windracers ULTRA UAV in Orkney, Shetland, Inverness and the Hebrides, thereby covering the whole of the Highlands and Islands region of Northern Scotland. It’s also looking at the potential of hydrogen-fuelled aircraft and other new platforms.
Ultimately, Prof Rae believes the model pioneered by SATE could be deployed and replicated around the world. “The original ambition of the project was to start on sub-regional (inter-island) routes (to which current technology is well suited) and expand to regional and short-haul operations as the technology and the use cases developed, so this is the next logical step. We believe firmly that this is a local solution to a global problem; if it works in Orkney it will work in Canada, the Caribbean, Micronesia, the Greek Islands, etc. so we are exploring global links to share our experience and the lessons learned, starting in Scandinavia where there is a natural affinity to both the challenges and the opportunities.”